So we’ve finally come to the last in this series, the forwards…which is the first line on the pitch, the strikers, the ones who win you the games.
Because if you don’t concede you don’t lose, but if you can’t score you can’t win.
And holy shit could this squad score. Let’s start with that.
The Forward Line
The Thorns rostered six forwards in 2022:
Sophia Smith, and
As a team, the Thorns scored 49 goals in 22 regular season games and four more in the playoffs.
That regular season total is only the fourth-best in NWSL history, after the two North Carolina championship squads (54 in 24 games in 2019, 53 in 24 games in 2018) and Seattle’s runner-up team in 2014 (50 goals in 24 games). Here’s all nine full seasons at a glance:
The 2019 Damned squad is still top of table based on goals scored per game, but this past seasons’ Thorns are the merest whisper behind, and between those two and the 2018 Carolina team they’re the class of the group. Nobody else comes within 10% of the three.
How did the Thorns forwards help with that? Well…
No surprises; Sophia Smith knocked in nearly a third of ALL Portland’s regular season goals (and a quarter of the playoff goals, so, there…). Morgan Weaver chipped in for almost another 15%. The forwards as a group tallied almost 47% of the team’s goals.
Compare that with 2018, when the Thorns midfield (Sinclair, Horan, and Heath) scored 29 – a little over 78% – of the team’s 37 goals and you can see that this was nearly the mirror image. Parsons’ squads leaned heavily on their midfields. Wilkinson’s got its goal upfront.
And, as is also obvious, from Smith and to a lesser extent Weaver.
That’s great, in that Smith is a generational talent, and has broken a long-standing scoring drought at forward; not since the early Teens have the Thorns had a striker of Smith’s quality. You have a big stick? You hit people with it.
That’s…also not so great, in that if you’re San Diego or Seattle or Louisville and you stop Smith, you stand about a 30% less chance of conceding. You stop Smith and you’re a long way towards stopping the Thorns.
With that in mind, let’s look at the forwards.
I’m not sure what I can say here that hasn’t already been said.
After struggling in 2021 – 7 goals in about 1,500 minutes over 22 games (9% conversion rate, a goal about every 219 minutes) – here’s Smith’s 2022:
Holy shit, yeah. That’s an MVP season.
Unsurprisingly, Smth’s PMRs are among the highest on the team. Only Hina Sugita’s numbers come close:
Here’s the two side-by-side:
Mind you…how’s the saying go? “Old age and treachery will defeat youth and skill”?
You know who this is, right?
It’s not that she’s a “better” striker – note who lifted the spatula this season – but her experience has given Morgan the knowledge and muscle memory to refine her talent to a razor edge.
She isn’t faster, or more clever, or stronger…she simply knows every angle, every edge, every advantage and can use them to convert her hard work into goals. Morgan is Smith only with ten-plus years of experience.
Will Smith be doing that sort of thing in eleven years?
I wouldn’t bet against it.
Let’s just make sure she’s still doing it down at SW 18th and Morrison.
If there is a single player here in Portland that can be said to be the Franchise, it’s Smith. If keeping her here requires a crap-ton of money and for Ken Puckett to dress up like Twilight Sparkle and give her pony rides to practice?
That shit needs to happen.
Weaver is still the Chaos Muppet of Portland. She’s the Happy Warrior, a huge smile atop a buzzsaw of mad sparky energy. I purely love her just for that.
She’s also kind of the anti-Smith.
Weaver has the same issues she’s had every since she arrived; she does a great job getting inside enemy defenses and making havoc.
Then she shanks her shot or fluffs it right at the keeper.
Also note that as a winger and second option Weaver has only three assists, the same as Smith the primary striker. Y’know who on the Thorns has more?
Yazmeen Ryan has four.
Hina Sugita has four.
Olivia “No, I’ll have a Shirley Temple, please…” Moultrie has four, for fuck’s sake.
Weaver is a good player, and a good piece of the front line.
She still needs to work on her game. She needs to develop a consistently dangerous shot selection. Since she’s a winger she needs to develop better connections with Smith and the other forwards and AMs.
C’mon, coaches! Look at this woman’s fucking pace! She got an engine on her like a damn GTO. You figure out how to unlock her inner Marta? You’ve got a goddamn Force of Nature.
That’s the “top two” forwards. Now we’re starting to move down the depth chart. But first I want to recap a player we looked at hard when we looked at the midfield:
In 2022 Ryan was effectively the bookend winger of Weaver; Ryan on the right with Weaver on the left.
Unfortunately as such she was even less efficient than Weaver; over 20 games and 1,100 minutes Ryan took only 22 shots, put only 7 on frame, and scored only twice. She did produce 5 assists, which is more like what Weaver should be doing, but…
As a right wing that’s not great, and what’s even more troubling is that…
…was even worse at the position.
Beckie is a solid attacking performer for the Canadian WNT, so her barrenness in front of goal here is a bit of a puzzle. To make matters more frustrating she can’t defend worth a lick, so she doesn’t add that and whoever has to hold down the right back position behind her needs to expect something that looks like the running of the bulls in Pamplona coming at her. I dunno what “…the fuck?” is in Finnish, but I’ll bet Natu Kuikka’s teammates heard it enough to know what it is.
Grade: C- (as a squad player) D- (as an expensive international)
My feeling is that Ryan at 23 is more likely to be able to lift her game than Beckie is at 28, and that the Canadian’s defensive issues seemed to be more hardwired than Ryan’s. Bottom line; I think Ryan is the better deal.
Their PMRs suggest that, too (Beckie in blue, Ryan in orange);
Beckie’s not a bad player. But Ryan is younger, cheaper, and as often as not as good (orbetter) and their skillsets virtually overlap.
I know which one I’d keep if I was the GM.
But whether the Thorns run out Ryan or Beckie at RW in a 4-3-3, that player needs to contribute more next season than they did this last.
Beckman was seen along Tanner Creek less often than Bigfoot:
I didn’t bother to include Beckman’s stats in front of goal because she didn’t have any; one shot off target.
I’m not sure what to say about her, there’s just no real data there and she played so little that even her quality as a reserve is questionable. There’s this; she looked worse to me than her partner Hannah Betfort did (Betfort in blue, Beckman in orange):
Beckman is deep depth, and as a sophomore probably cheaper than dirt.
But given her 2022, whether she’d be more useful than a new draftee or a trade?
Hard to say.
I think we’ve almost covered Betford in discussing Beckman, except there’s this:
She scored a goal!
That’s great, because given her other stats it might be the only professional goal she ever scores. I hope they gave her the match ball.
Here’s the thing.
I kind of hate writing this stuff about players like Beckman and Betfort. They seem like decent young people working hard and chasing a very demanding dream. They’re hurling their bodies at their sport like heroes. I wish them nothing but well.
But that’s not what I’m here to do. As I said when we started; I’m here to discuss how these players did and whether that suggests they are helping their team.
From the look of it, Betfort is, sorta, and definitely more than her partner Beckman.
Does that mean she’ll be here in April?
Do we really have to go through that whole thing about “soccer is a cruel game” again?
For her and her loved ones’ sake? I hope she’s here, I hope she’s still chasing that dream.
But I wouldn’t bet money on it.
Almost done, and the last player on our list is already gone:
Everett is one of those “why women’s soccer is still struggling” stories; she retired to go to school to pick up her RN.
Why would a player retire at the age of 25? Hell, I’m 65 and I’m not sure I’m comfortable with retiring yet.
But a squad player like Everett is out there busting her hump for peanuts compared even to what I make as a soils engineer, and I don’t have Amber Brooks cleating the shit out of me every time I receive a pass or hurling my guts out after running gassers.
Everett was solid in midseason but seemed to struggle late in the year – she had an awful game in Louisville on Matchday 20 and disappeared from the pitch after that.
Not sure if that was part of convincing her to hang ’em up.
Grade: Withdraw (Passing)
Whatever the reason, she seemed like a good person, she was decent depth, and she left it all on the pitch, and nobody can ask more of a player than that. Good luck, ME at your RN; I wish you a solid hit on every IV stick.
I don’t think I can give the forwards an overall grade as a group, because the 2022 Portland frontline could be divided into three general groups and all three were wildly different:
At the top you had Smith (Overall grade: A+),
Behind her you had Weaver (Overall grade: B+), and
Then there was everyone else (Overall grade: C to C-)
So maybe give the starters an A- and the depth a C, so a B average for the unit?
It seems harsh to drag Smith down to a B average because Hannah Betfort is an iffy depth piece, but it also seems a bit unrealistic to give the reserves “B’s” when they did so little when their times came.
Up front is where the Thorns really struggle with finding someone to carry the load when Smith and Weaver are absent or the opponent figures out how to mark one or both out of the game.
So the real issues in front of whoever-the-2023-coach-and-FO-is-gonna-be will be:
– Keeping Smith here and happy,
– Developing Weaver’s scoring and assisting touch, and
– Either 1) finding reliable backups for both of them, or 2) yanking scoring options out of the rest of the other existing squad players to replace them when they’re not here or not clicking.
Will that happen? Can that happen, given the chaotic condition of the club now?
That’s what we’re going to speculate about next time…
Next Up: The Coaches, Trainers, and Management